“Democrats have a history of vaccine misinformation and not trusting science.”

— text in a video posted by Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), July 26

Republicans, especially supporters of former president Donald Trump, increasingly make up a large share of people refusing coronavirus vaccines, according to various surveys. With Democrats claiming that Republicans are not trusting science, Scalise, the House minority whip, decided to go on the offense, releasing a video claiming that Democrats actually are purveyors of vaccine misinformation.

This is a classic example of “whataboutism.” The 57-second video consists of clips of three prominent Democrats — President Biden, Vice President Harris and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — but are carefully clipped to remove context or to twist their meaning. These comments were made in 2020, when Trump was president and he was pressing the Food and Drug Administration to approve a vaccine before the presidential election.

At one point, after the FDA issued guidance that effectively made it impossible to green-light a vaccine by Election Day, Trump even publicly claimed on Sept. 23 that the White House could overrule the FDA. Many of these comments took place in the outraged reaction that followed. FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn publicly stated: “FDA will not authorize or approve a vaccine that we would not feel comfortable giving to our families,” adding that career staff would make the decision on whether to approve a vaccine and “FDA will not permit any pressure from anyone to change that.”

As our colleagues Yasmeen Abutaleb and Damian Paletta report in their best-selling book “Nightmare Scenario,” Trump repeatedly viewed the vaccine through the lens of what it would mean for his election prospects — not whether it would save lives. “For Trump, if a vaccine didn’t come in time for the election, it wasn’t going to be soon enough,” they write, noting that he had little interest in Operation Warp Speed at first because he believed a vaccine would not be ready by Election Day.

But then the vaccine manufacturers started to report unexpected success and Trump seized on the vaccine as a political lifeline. The situation created enormous tension within the FDA about whether career scientists could do their jobs without political inference.

In September, “Trump was so fixated on having a vaccine before the election that it came up in almost every meeting, whether it was about the vaccine or not,” Abutaleb and Paletta reported. “Trump himself was telling aides and outside advisers that his reelection chances were directly tied to the vaccine. [White House chief of staff Mark] Meadows and Trump were injecting themselves so aggressively into the approval process that prominent Democrats began raising questions about whether the FDA’s decision would be scientifically pure.”

So, with that context in mind, let’s review the clips in the video, in the order in which they appear. We’ve highlighted the snippet used in the video in boldface.

Cuomo, remarks to reporters, Sept. 24

The first question is: Is the vaccine safe? Frankly, I’m not going to trust the federal government’s opinion and I wouldn’t recommend to New Yorkers based on the federal government’s opinion. Second question is, if it is a safe vaccine, how do you implement it? Implementation is a massive undertaking. On the first question of is it safe, New York State will have its own review. When the federal government is finished with their review and says it’s safe. We’re going to put together our own review committee headed by the Department of Health that will advise me — we have the best hospitals and research facilities on the globe in this state. We’re going to put together a group for them to review the vaccine so I can look at the camera and I can say to New Yorkers that it’s safe to take. I want to make sure that we know it’s safe to take.”

Analysis: Cuomo’s remarks were made shortly after Trump suggested that he could overrule the FDA. Cuomo made a show of appointing his own panel of six scientists to review the vaccines, and it quickly affirmed that the vaccines were safe. (New York initially fought releasing records of the meetings, and when they were released months later, the panel “mostly piggybacked” on the FDA review, according to the Empire Center for Public Policy.) Obviously, this was political theater, with Cuomo attempting to suggest to the vaccine-wary that he would obtain an extra level of assurance from scientists not connected to the Trump administration.

“Look at what’s happened. An enormous pressure put on the CDC not to put out the detailed guidelines. Enormous pressure being put on the FDA to say the following protocol will have a giant impact on covid. All these things turn out not to be true, and when a president continues to mislead and lie. When we finally do, God willing, get a vaccine, who’s going to take the shot? Who’s going to take the shot? Are you going to be the first one to say sign me up? They now say it’s okay. I’m not being facetious.”

Analysis: Biden made this statement after observing the series of actions taken by the Trump White House that appeared to undermine supposedly independent agencies. The video leaves that context on the cutting-room floor.

Harris, interview on CNN, Sept. 6:

CNN’s DANA BASH: But do you trust that, in the situation where we're in now, that the public health experts and the scientists will get the last word on the efficacy of a vaccine?

HARRIS: If past is prologue, that they will not, they will be muzzled, they will be suppressed, they will be sidelined, because he’s looking at an election coming up in less than 60 days, and he’s grasping for whatever he can get to pretend that he has been a leader on this issue, when he has not.

BASH: So, let’s just say there is a vaccine that is approved and even distributed before the election. Would you get it?

HARRIS: Well, I think that’s going to be an issue for all of us. I will say that I would not trust Donald Trump. And it would have to be a credible source of information that talks about the efficacy and the reliability of whatever he’s talking about. I will not take his word for it. He wants us to inject bleach. I — no, I will not take his word.

Analysis: The video leaves out the fact that Harris makes a distinction between Trump and credible sources of information on the safety of the vaccines. Harris correctly notes that Trump was obsessed with releasing a vaccine before the election.

MODERATOR SUSAN PAGE: For life to get back to normal, Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts say that most of the people who can be vaccinated need to be vaccinated, but half of Americans now say they wouldn’t take a vaccine if it was released now. If the Trump administration approves a vaccine, before after the election, should Americans take it and would you take it?

HARRIS: If the public health professionals, if Dr. Fauci, if the doctors tell us that we should take it, I’ll be the first in line to take it. Absolutely. But if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I’m not taking it.

Analysis: This is perhaps the most misleading clip. Harris clearly says she would take the vaccine if recommended by respected doctors like Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: “I’ll be the first in line to take it. Absolutely.” She draws a clear distinction with a politically motivated announcement by Trump, but the video clip leaves the impression she is opposed to any vaccine.

Cuomo, interview on MSNBC, Sept. 25

I don’t trust the president. And I don’t trust the FDA. And the doctor who you just had on your show was exactly right. They have lied about covid from day one. They lied in January, when Peter Navarro had the memo saying 2 to 3 million people would get infected, and they denied it. They denied covid was here. They’re denying it now. The doctor is exactly right, Joy. They’re actually doing fewer tests. Florida now does fewer tests than they did two months ago. This is the Trump doctrine. Do fewer tests, so you will show fewer cases. Remember, he said, if you test less, we will have fewer cases. That’s what he’s doing. The vaccine. He said yesterday that the FDA was being political in saying they actually wanted to review the vaccine. So yes, the American people don’t trust the FDA. They shouldn’t. Trump has politicized this entire situation. He’s overridden health and science with politics.”

Analysis: Cuomo again is knocking Trump for appearing to interfere in the FDA’s approval process, accusing him of politicizing the process.

ERROL BARNETT: What’s key to people feeling safe to go back to work and school is a vaccine. A recent CBS News-YouGov poll found that some 70 percent of Americans would either wait to get a vaccine and see what happens to other people or not get one at all. That’s a huge segment of the population. How then would you secure that every American gets a vaccine as soon as possible considering that distrust?

BIDEN: Tell the truth. Listen to the science. Lay out explicitly whatever vaccine comes first. Make it totally open for review by every medical facility in the country, making clear that in fact it is safe, instead of what Trump is talking about. He’s talking about all these different vaccines. They’re going to be ready to go, and so on and so forth . … The fact is that the way he talks about the vaccine is not particularly rational. He’s talking it being ready. He’s going to talk about moving it quicker than the scientists think it should be moved. It matters to let the people know that it is all transparent, exactly what the facts are. Let the medical community writ large speak to it so that there’s transparency. Look, I think people are going to, as the poll show and we talked about it today with the two docs and my staff, that in fact people don’t believe that he’s telling the truth. Therefore, they’re not at all certain they’re going to take the vaccine. One more thing, if and when the vaccine comes, and it’s not likely to go through all the tests that needs and the trials that are needed to be done, and the question is, is he going to seek an emergency move? Well, I think it’s really important right now. I proposed a $25 billion plan for the distribution to guarantee that every single American has access to the vaccine because what’s going to happen, you know as well as I do, if the vaccine came out tomorrow, how in the heck would we get it to people? There is no game plan they have. How would everybody in America have access to it? It is a gigantic, gigantic problem to distribute, even if we have it. That’s we should be planning for now. Now. Not when we get it.

Analysis: This is another highly deceitful clip. The snippet suggests Biden is expressing skepticism about the vaccine, when in fact he is talking about impact that Trump’s political moves have made on public perception of the vaccine. As Biden put it: “People don’t believe that he’s telling the truth. Therefore, they’re not at all certain they’re going to take the vaccine.”

Cuomo, interview with CNN, Sept. 25

“The FDA said they want to bring in outside observers as part of the process to provide comfort to the American people. Trump said he didn’t think that was necessary — as if he’s an expert on science and public health, and that he might overrule the FDA. So, the American people don’t trust the process. I don’t trust the process. This is a president who you know calls health officials and tells them what he wants done politically. So, I think it would actually serve the public if they knew there was a bona fide review because you don’t want to come out with a vaccine that people are afraid to take.”

Analysis: Again, Cuomo is reacting to Trump’s statement that he might overrule the FDA. That’s why he said he does not trust the process.

When we asked Scalise communications director Lauren Fine about these misleading clips, she responded with a statement that did not address the question.

“The media’s hackery in attempting to deny that President Biden and Vice President Harris questioned the vaccine when they said it on camera several times is yet another example of why the American people’s trust in the mainstream media is at record lows. The bottom line is this: there would be no vaccine without the leadership of the Trump Administration and their creation of Operation Warp Speed. Rather than questioning President Trump’s correct predictions that a safe and effective vaccine would be created in record time, President Biden and Vice President Harris should be thanking him for the creation of the very vaccine they now take credit for distributing.”

The Pinocchio Test

Scalise conveniently ignores the fact that Trump himself injected politics into the FDA’s approval process. Trump’s statements raised serious concerns that vaccine approval was being expedited to improve Trump’s reelection chances. In the end, the career staff won out and the vaccines were not formally approved on an emergency basis until after the election — which Trump lost. Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, especially his touting of quick-fix cures before he latched onto the vaccine, is well-documented in Abutaleb and Paletta’s book.

The full text of Biden and Harris’s statements showed that they properly framed the issue as concern about possible political interference by Trump. Cuomo’s comments, such as his creation of an unnecessary state task force to also approve the vaccines, are slightly more problematic, but again he was responding to Trump’s assertion he could overrule the FDA.

In other words, Scalise’s framing is ridiculous. Viewed in context, these clips provide no evidence that these Democrats distrusted science or distributed misinformation. They distrusted Trump — with good reason, given the revelations in “Nightmare Scenario.”

Four Pinocchios

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